Positive Thoughts

KENYON FARROW

Stop Calling the Cops

  • January 14, 2019 - 1:14am

When it comes to HIV disclosure, it’s time to stop involving the police

When I see films or documentaries about the early days of the AIDS epidemic that focus on the lives and relationships of gay men, I see a lot of people taking care of one another. In many cases, one partner might find out he’s HIV positive, the other partner finds out his status, and the two stay together, and one taking care of the other until one or both is met with the unfortunate fate of certain death. I’m sure it also happened that many men, who were brave enough to finally disclose their status in a time where there were no available treatments to keep them alive, were in fact deserted by their lovers, and left to other family and friends to care for them until they died.

But in neither scenario do I recall seeing images of a man, upon learning of his partners HIV status, sneaking quietly into another room, and dialing 9-1-1 to report to the police, that they may have been exposed to the virus. 

And yet, that is happening. And I’d ask all gay men reading this to please stop. 

There are laws that criminalize the lack of disclosing one’s HIV status to sexual partners in about [34 states[http://www.thebody.com/content/80334/map-hiv-criminalization-in-the-united-states.html?ic=sanext]]. Some make the act of “exposing” someone to HIV a felony crime. And some make the act of not disclosing one’s status to sexual partners a crime. Now, we can debate the fact that “exposing” someone to HIV is often based on ideas about transmission that are 30 years old and no longer relevant. Spitting doesn’t transmit HIV, for example. And we also know if a person is on antiretroviral therapy and the virus is suppressed in their bodies, they cannot transmit the virus through sexual contact – even if it’s sex without a condom (or what we call Undetectable=Untransmittable, or U=U). 

While it’s important that we all know the latest information about HIV transmission, it still shouldn’t matter. No gay or bisexual men, as maligned as we all still are in the world, should ever think the best solution to deal with HIV – whether you contract the virus or not – is to use the police and the specter of a prison sentence. 

I’ve been working on issues of HIV criminalization for about 10 years. And in the last few years I’ve done some support on two particular cases where gay men have opted to bring down the force of punitive police and prison onto people they say didn’t disclose they were HIV positive, even if they didn’t contract HIV. [Michael Johnson[http://www.thebody.com/content/80461/michael-johnson-bypasses-trial-enters-no-contest-p.html]] is a young black gay man in Missouri, currently serving a 10-year sentence for exposing several sex partners to HIV, only one of whom contracted HIV, and whether or not he disclosed his status is something only the people involved know. But the person who called the police and who is HIV positive says he contracted HIV from Johnson, but does not say that the sex they had was coerced, or anything approaching assault. It was consensual. 

More recently, 24-year-old [Sanjay Johnson[http://www.thebody.com/content/81289/sanjay-johnson-faces-prison-sentence-in-arkansas-h.html]] is facing trial in Arkansas, in early 2019, after disclosing his status after having sex with another young man. There is documented evidence that Johnson was, in fact, virally suppressed at the time of their sexual encounter, and the other person in question told TheBody that he tested positive just weeks later, and was concurrently given an AIDS diagnosis, which suggests he may have also been HIV positive at the time he had sex with Johnson, but did not know. The accuser also suggests that when he called the police, he didn’t realize they would charge Johnson with a felony and that it would mean Johnson would be sent to prison. 

I am a Black gay man approaching my 44th birthday. I straddle the generation of men who literally lost dozens, if not hundreds, of friends and lovers, and those who are now coming of age where we have great treatments that will suppress the virus to make condomless sex of no risk for HIV transmission, as well as having PrEP – an option other than condoms to prevent HIV for those who are HIV negative. I’m on PrEP and made the choice to use PrEP several years ago so that I would take my own HIV prevention into my own hands, and not leave it to guess whether someone is HIV-positive or negative. And I also am open to dating or having sex with men who are HIV positive (and already have) but I don’t need someone to disclose their status in order for me to make decisions about my own body.

But I’ve been disheartened by the fact that we have such fear and mistrust of one another that people think calling the police on someone for their health status is something that will keep us safe. Police and prisons do not bring about safety. Access to quality health care that is affordable is safety. Housing, drug treatment and harm reduction is safety. And having the love and support of other men, as friends, as lovers, as a community, is what will make us safe, and heal us all of the specter and the stigma of HIV, whether HIV positive or negative.

Jeff Berry

Growing Pains - The future of HIV remains hopeful

These are uncertain times we live in. When daily messages of hopelessness and despair fill your newsfeed, there may be a temptation to shut down and tune out, or to return to old, self-destructive behaviors in an effort to cope. 

If you just tested positive, you might be thinking it’s the last straw. But I need you need to know...you will be OK. You’re going to be OK. 

If you’re a long-term survivor of HIV, you’ve come a long way, baby. Don’t give up now. We’ve come too far to be defeated this easily. 

Lately, I’ve been reading up on something called post-traumatic growth. Research shows that many people who face trauma, adversity, or other life challenges actually report positive benefits, becoming stronger and having a more meaningful life in the wake of tragedy or a life-altering experience. We’ve seen this played out time and time again in HIV, where people turn their life around, and find meaning in their lives by helping others. 

There are numerous instances of life after testing positive that are uplifting and inspiring. Take Magic Johnson, for example. He used his diagnosis to raise awareness about HIV, how it’s transmitted (and more importantly how it’s not transmitted), while providing hope to many of us living with HIV that we can still live
a full, happy and healthy life. AIDS activist the Rev. Rae Lewis-Thornton is another inspirational figure, someone who has been living with AIDS since the 1980s, yet uses her remarkable journey and life story to help inform others, especially youth, about HIV and AIDS. 

HIV stigma still remains a stubborn issue, unfortunately. It’s important to understand the many layers of stigma, if we are ever truly going to put a dent in the alarming number of new infections taking place in many of our disadvantaged and disempowered communities. 

So whether you just tested positive, or are a long-timer like me, I encourage you to try to take your adversity and mold it into a strength. Taking control of your life and making healthy choices, helping you to become informed about HIV treatment so that you can advocate for your own health, or the health of someone you care about, can be your first step toward a new, more meaningful life.

The HIV treatment landscape continues to evolve. For those who are newly or recently diagnosed, one pill once a day with few or no side effects is pretty much
a given these days. But it wasn’t long ago that we had to take handfuls of pills several times a day, with horrible side effects like diarrhea, bone loss, kidney stones or, worse, lots of restrictions and qualifications on when and how to dose our meds. 

When all is said and done, though, the future of HIV treatment looks bright, with more effective and more tolerable medications (no more “me-too” drugs); long- acting injectables being studied for treatment and prevention; two-drug single-tablet regimens; and new co-formulations of existing medications, all on the near horizon. Drugs that attack HIV using different targets and new delivery methods could help those with resistance or who are struggling with adherence, but challenges remain. The availability of generics could alter the landscape even further, with new generic single-tablet regimens coming soon to a pharmacy near you, potentially reducing the costs of these expensive medications.

With recent reports that the overall rate of new infections are actually falling in the U.S., largely due to Treatment as Prevention (TasP, or undetectable equals uninfectious) and the rising use of daily oral PrEP for those who are HIV-negative to remain negative, the future of HIV in this country looks hopeful. Efforts to increase awareness about the benefits of testing and treatment for HIV, with no stigma attached to being aware of your status – along with the movement to rescind laws in certain states that criminalize HIV transmission, coupled with advances in HIV cure research – will keep us on track to one day eliminate HIV once and for all.

I’m HIV-Positive and Still Not Into You

  • April 1, 2017 - 3:55pm

As someone who is out about being HIV-positive, I often get the privilege of hearing from other newly diagnosed gay men from across the country. As anyone can imagine, learning you are positive can feel like taking a cannonball to the chest. So, sometimes you need to talk to a stranger before you can catch your breath and find the words for your family and friends.

Although I’m no psychotherapist, I can relate and speak to the myriad of fears that flood your headspace while sitting in the clinic and receiving the news. In almost every instance, the most pressing concern in the emails, texts and phone calls I receive is about how HIV will affect a person’s dating life.

I remember it all too well. When I first found out about my status, all of my romantic dreams instantly felt like dead ones. Who would love me now? Can I ever enjoy sex again? Will I ever get married? And I went wah, wah, wah into my wine glass all through the night.

The truth is, once I picked myself out of the puddle of tears, I was relatively unaltered. Besides a recurring doctor’s appointment every four months and a new pill to add to my pill box, my worth on the dating market remained the same. Of course, the first couple months were pretty shaky. Learning how to disclose your status isn’t something most gay men discuss over cocktails on a Saturday night – although it should be.

I've had to answer the question I’m asked over and over again. When is the right time to disclose? Many of my friends think you should let the person get to know you first before launching into your medical history. After all, you don’t disclose all of the dirty details of your life on a first date, so what makes your status any different? Right?

Wrong. Being HIV positive isn’t the same as having a beast of a mother or being a Log Cabin Republican. Those dirty details are the layers of who you are as a person, and they’re revealed as a relationship develops. Your status isn’t a part of your character; it’s a matter of logistics. Either your Friday night date is someone who understands the logistics of dating someone positive, or he doesn’t.

If a potential match is afraid of dating someone who is positive, your personality and charm will not remedy his fear. Your status isn’t a deep dark secret or something to hide. But acting as if it is will most assuredly scare away anyone who is unsure about dating you.

Just as in any dating environment, confidence goes further than any amount of money, expensive suit or HIV-negative status. If you treat your status as some cloaked secret that you’re asking him to overlook because everything else is great, he’ll respond accordingly. But if you tell him before the first drink is served and approach it as if it’s something you need to clear up for the benefit of both of you, your honesty will be appreciated and will most likely be a turn on.

You know what confidence is? It’s knowing that the goods you’re selling are worth their sticker price, and you don’t need to discount them for anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re positive, negative, too short, too tall, balding or bushy-browed, you should be worried about who is right for you and forget about trying to be the right person for anyone else. It may never move past the first date regardless of your status, so don’t act like you’re desperate for your potential match to love you until you know you love him back.

Unfortunately, some people would like to see you stay in a state of despair rather than have you realize you’re the same good catch you’ve always been. It’s human nature to want to feel superior, and people will use any excuse to justify their feelings. You may even have men lash out at you for not being a sad sap and giving them the attention they think they deserve. It’s as if, because you are now positive, you should be grateful for their interest. Conversely, your disinterest in them is a disruption of the natural hierarchy.

To these types of men, just smile more, because there’s nothing more gratifying than getting under the skin of a person who wants to feel better than you but can’t.

Yes, people will try to put you down. A lot of people love a sob story, and a lot of people love to hate a story of success. But, regardless of your status, you’ll always deal with people who want to see you struggle.

People like their boxes. If you’re positive, many will want you to stay in yours. I’ve been told that I have no idea what I am talking about, and I’m not realistic about how hard living with HIV really is. True, living with HIV can be difficult, but only if you listen to other people’s opinions and beliefs of what it’s supposed to be like. If you don’t, you’re free to define how your life is viewed for yourself.

It’s your choice to live your life as a tragedy, a drama, or a romantic comedy. Just remember, you’re in charge of casting your leading man. If he isn’t smart enough to understand your script, then he doesn’t get the part.

Jeff Berry

A sense of community

  • November 27, 2016 - 11:50am

 

Community is a word I often hear bandied about at various HIV meetings, conferences and gatherings, but it’s sometimes a loaded word that often means different things to different people, and its definition depends on the setting or context in which it’s used. Community can be based on geography, such as the actual community of Hollywood, Florida, or it can be used to describe those who share a common history, or social, economic and political interests. Then there is the psychological sense of community, defined as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”

All of our various communities are in flux right now with an overall general increase in awareness of social injustices that exist in our society, and the realization that positive change needs to occur. Some communities have recently come under attack, both literally and figuratively, in the midst of a very divisive political climate. A direct attack on our brothers and sisters at Pulse nightclub in Orlando was devastating, and touched all of us deeply, and is beyond the realm of understanding. But even in the darkest moments, hope rises up, as seen with the lines of people that grew to be blocks long, waiting to donate blood; the makeshift memorials of flowers and candles that instantly began popping up; the tales of grace and heartbreak that emerged from those who survived. And the faces and stories behind the 49 members of our community who we lost but are not, and will never be, forgotten.

When recently summoned for jury duty at the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago, I spent a day with 41 other individuals while being questioned by the judge and lawyers for the plaintiff and defendants in a civil suit. I really didn’t want to be selected because I would have had to cancel a vacation I had been planning for months, but as the day wore on I was fascinated by the process of jury selection, and quite impressed by the knowledge and wisdom of the judge overseeing the case. He kept stressing to all of us in the room how we are the only country in the world in which civil cases are left to 12 members of a community to decide, after weighing all of the facts. He used the word “community” several times throughout the day, and after being in the same room all day with the other prospective jurors, all of us sharing personal details about our lives, education and work history, I felt a strong sense of community. Yes, we were all very diverse and had different backgrounds, but we were coming together to work toward a common cause, one that I believe benefits us all.

In July I was extremely fortunate to be able to attend the International AIDS Conference in Durban. Shortly after my arrival I was invited by Barb Cardell of Positive Women’s Network-USA to participate in a demonstration against HIV criminalization during Tuesday’s opening plenary. We arrived at the convention center early that morning in order to get seats toward the front of the room, a strategic move, I was told, when one is planning a demonstration. I had my chant memorized and my Stop HIV Criminalization T-shirt ready to go, so I felt prepared. Edwin Cameron, the final speaker, stepped up to the podium to give the Jonathan Mann lecture. (Mann was a prominent HIV researcher and activist who pioneered the idea of a link between human health and human rights, and died at age 51, with his wife, in a plane crash in 1998.) Cameron, a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, who is well known for his activism on AIDS and gay rights, is a tall, lanky man with a soft-spoken demeanor, and an eloquent speaker who is living with HIV. As he began talking, the auditorium fell into a hush.

“At the start of a very busy conference, with many stresses and demands and anguishes, I want to start by asking us to pause quietly for just a few moments. It has been 35 years since the Western world was alerted to AIDS. The first cases of a baffling new, terrifying, unknown syndrome were first reported in the northern summer of 1981...

“These last 35 years since then have been long. For many of us, it has been an arduous and exhausting and often dismaying journey.”

My eyes started tearing up.

“Since this first report, 35 million people have died of AIDS illnesses – in 2015 alone, 1.1 million people. “We have felt the burden of this terrible disease in our bodies, on our minds, on our friends and colleagues, on our loved ones and our communities.

“AIDS exposes us in all our terrible human vulnerability. It brings to the fore our fears and prejudices. It takes its toll on our bodily organs and our muscles and our flesh. It has exacted its terrible toll on our young people and parents and brothers and sisters and neighbors.” 

Then I began to cry.

“So let us pause, first, in remembrance of those who have died: those for whom treatment didn’t come in time; those for whom treatment wasn’t available, or accessible; those denied treatment by our own failings as planners and thinkers and doers and leaders; those whom the internal nightmare of shame and stigma put beyond reach of intervention and help.

“These years have demanded of us a long and anguished and grief-stricken journey. “But it has also been a journey of light—a journey of technological, scientific, organizational, and activist triumph.”

By then I was sobbing, uncontrollably, almost to the point of wailing out loud. It took all I could at that moment to suppress my emotions that came bubbling up to the surface from almost 30 years of living with HIV, and nearly a quarter of a century working in the field. It was as though someone finally gave me the permission to feel all that sadness, shame, neglect and anguish. It was OK, and I was going to be OK.

Cameron went on to highlight the stunning achievements made by doctors, researchers, but most of all the advocates, to whom many of us with HIV owe our lives. I felt a true sense of community in that moment, and the sense that great things can be achieved when we all come together to achieve a common cause. So the next time you hear the word “community,” think about how wonderful and amazing communities are, and the potential they have and what they can truly accomplish. Changing the world can seem daunting, next to impossible. But true change in our community starts with us, one person at a time. We only have to take the time to reach out, take our neighbors by the hand, and lift each other up.

ORIOL R. GUTIERREZ

Positive Thoughts: Raising HIV Awareness Among Latinos

  • October 1, 2016 - 5:42pm

I graduated college in 1992, the same year I tested HIV positive. Sometime in the late ’90s, I reconnected with a college friend. He was actually a friend with benefits, so I was quite happy when he tracked me down, which wasn’t that easy back then, at least compared with today. 

He invited me to a nice dinner in Chelsea, which was becoming the happening place in New York City for LGBTs. (Hell’s Kitchen now has that distinction.) His intentions seemed to be more than two friends catching up. It turns out, I wasn’t off the mark. He had recently broken up with a boyfriend.

We were all smiles by dessert, but then he became awkwardly silent. “I have to ask you,” he said, “are you HIV positive?” I said yes. He said, “I knew it!” I said, “What do you mean you knew it?” He said, “Well, come on, we both know what I mean.” Then I became furiously silent.

Finally I asked, “Because I’m a slut?” Breaking the tension with a smile and a squeeze of my hand, he looked me in the eyes and said, “That’s why I tracked you down!” We laughed and moved on, but between his hypochondria and my HIV it was clear that we weren’t going to be a couple.

Instead, we became close friends with some minor benefits along the way as he became more educated about the virus. We’re still good friends, but those benefits expired a while ago, which is just fine. Although I’ve long since forgiven him, I often use this memory as a touchstone.

Even with such a wealth of affection between us, my dear friend couldn’t see past his assumptions. His sexual appetite was no different than mine I eventually confirmed, but nonetheless, as a white gay man, he assumed that I, as a Latino gay man, was naturally more sexual than him.

And there it is, this double-edged sword of a myth. Just as black men have to contend with the myth of their endowments, Latinos have to counter the myth of our libidos. I admit the Don Juan persona can come in handy on occasion, but the price over time for using it is quite high.

Case in point: When citing these statistics — if current trends in U.S. HIV rates continue, 1 in 2 black men who have sex with men (MSM) and 1 in 4 Latino MSM will get HIV in their lifetimes — what often follows is a train of thought among too many people that blames and shames.

Studies show that MSM of color aren’t more sexual or taking more risks than white MSM, and lack of access to health care explains only part of those stats. Another factor is that the sexual networks of many MSM of color only include other MSM of color. There is a measure of choice in that fact. 

However, prejudice from white MSM, no matter how benign, is also at work. That is an uncomfortable truth, but it’s not too difficult to see just by browsing posts on dating apps and sites that clearly rule out certain racial or ethnic identities. Such sweeping categorical rejections are all too common.

I know many of you are saying to yourselves, “I like what I like.” I agree, in general. I, too, like what I like. That said, if I don’t find myself attracted to someone, I still take a moment to question why that is. I encourage you to do the same. You may be missing out by sticking to your predetermined likes.

Of course, no matter what our backgrounds are, we are all responsible for our own behaviors. Part of taking responsibility is becoming knowledgeable, which is what annual awareness days are supposed to support. This column in particular is in support of National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day (NLAAD), which is Oct. 15.

This is the first year that “Latinx” is in the official NLAAD title, replacing “Latino.” Latinx (pronounced “La-teen-ex”) is a gender-neutral alternative to Latino and Latina. The Latino Commission on AIDS coordinates the NLAAD campaign, but groups across the country conduct local NLAAD events.

According to the NLAAD website, since the awareness day was established in 2003, there are now about 450 partners that organize more than 150 related events nationwide. To find an event near you, please go to nlaad.org or Twitter @nlaad or Facebook @OfficialNLAAD for more information. 

 

Kate Burton builds on the AIDS legacy of stepmother Elizabeth Taylor

  • January 22, 2016 - 10:36pm

Many know Kate Burton as an actress, most recently portraying the right-wing Vice President Sally Langston in the hit TV show Scandal, and in Greys Anatomy as Dr. Ellis Grey, the former surgeon and mother of lead character Dr. Meredith Grey, who dies of Alzheimer’s.

 

But what some people may not realize is that Burton, daughter of actor Richard Burton, also serves as an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF), which her stepmother founded. “People know, and people knew, my stepmom as a famous movie actress,” said Burton in a 2014 interview, “but at her fundamental core, she was a caring, compassionate person who advocated for the neediest of the needy.”

 

Burton, in an email to Positively Aware magazine, says she’s been involved in raising awareness about HIV since her dear friends Meghan Robinson and Michael O’Gorman died from AIDS. “From that time on, I knew that it would be a fight I would devote myself to. It was thrilling to me that Elizabeth became such a passionate advocate for AIDS awareness. As we all know, she and Dr. (Mathilde) Krim put this fight on the map.”

 

Elizabeth Taylor founded ETAF in 1991 to support organizations delivering direct care and services to people living with HIV and AIDS, often to the most marginalized populations, according to their website. Today, Taylor’s friends and family work together as ETAF ambassadors to help keep the issue of HIV/AIDS “top-of-mind” for the public. Taylor’s trust covers the operating costs of ETAF, ensuring that 100 percent of donations go directly to people affected by HIV/AIDS.

 

“My work as an ETAF ambassador entails many things,” says Burton, “but primarily I serve as a spokesperson or a message deliverer when called upon, although the hard ‘on-the-ground’ work is delivered by (ETAF Managing Director) Joel Goldman and his wonderful staff.”

 

Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, NO/AIDS Task Force, the largest HIV provider in New Orleans, had no offices and its patients nowhere to turn. Taylor wanted to help, and through her foundation was able to provide a mobile treatment unit so that clients were able to continue to access their medications and other lifesaving services, uninterrupted.

 

Taylor, understanding how successful the model was and that it didn’t need to be limited to a natural disaster, began to replicate it in other locales. She knew that chronic lack of access to healthcare was the biggest barrier in the battle against HIV and AIDS, according to a recent ETAF statement, and said, “If people cannot get to healthcare, why can’t we bring healthcare to people?” Since 2008, seven Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance/Elizabeth Taylor Mobile Health Clinics have been delivering care to the people of Mulanje and Phalombe districts in Malawi.

 

Recently, in collaboration with the Elizabeth Taylor Trust and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, Getty Images Gallery in London produced “Grit and Glamour” to mark 30 years since Taylor first began her leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Taylor’s son Christopher Wilding’s “major new photographic exhibition offered Elizabeth Taylor fans the chance to view previously unseen images of the Hollywood icon in a celebration of the British actress’ 30-year campaign to raise awareness on HIV and AIDS,” according to the Daily Mail.

 

In her day job, Burton has garnered two Emmy nominations for her portrayals of strong characters developed by Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Greys Anatomy and Scandal. “Shonda Rhimes has been incredibly important to me in my life as an actress,” says Burton. “She chose me to play Ellis Grey in Greys Anatomy 12 years ago, which changed my professional life but more importantly, put advocacy for Alzheimer’s research front and center on network television and in the national conversation. Seven years later she chose me to play the larger-than-life, devout and conservative Vice President Sally Langston in Scandal. I initially thought that this character was not based on reality...until I saw the current crop of Republican candidates! Sally would fit right in amongst them, alas!”

 

In February hundreds of HIV advocates from across the country will descend upon Washington D.C. for AIDSWatch 2016, the largest constituent-based HIV advocacy event in the U.S., to educate Congress about the policies and resources needed to end the HIV epidemic. ETAF is the lead sponsor.

 

“The work that AIDSWatch does to elevate the voices of people living with and affected by HIV is crucial, and very much aligned with Elizabeth Taylor’s passionate approach,” says Joel Goldman of ETAF. “She used her enormous platform to advocate for those whose voices were being ignored, just as AIDSWatch is doing today. ETAF is thrilled to be the presenting sponsor for the second time and to see the impact of this exciting event continue to grow.”

 

As for Burton, she says her advocacy for AIDS research and the search for a cure will continue throughout her life. Along with her work at ETAF she also serves on the board of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

 

In September of last year at the 2015 United States Conference on AIDS (USCA), Burton presented the Elizabeth Taylor Legacy Award to House Leader Nancy Pelosi for her tireless work in the fight against HIV. “Presenting the ETAF award to Leader Pelosi on behalf of my stepmother was one of the greatest honors I have ever had,” says Burton. “I will always cherish the memory.”

 

 

GO! Athletes gets a mentorship

  • January 1, 2016 - 8:53pm

Growing up in suburban Chicago, Chris Mosier had no FTM athletic role models. There were none at Northern Michigan University either, where – among many other activities – Mosier edited the school paper, performed as the Wildcat Willie mascot, led a service organization and played intramural sports.

 

But very quietly, Mosier has become the first openly trans man on a U.S. men’s national team (triathlon). His event – the run-cycle-run sprint duathlon – takes an enormous amount of time and energy.

 

His full-time job is assistant director of housing at a New York City-area university. But Mosier still manages to serve as executive director of GO! Athletes, a national LGBT student-athlete network. It’s an unpaid post, but he devotes many hours a week to it.

Now he’s taken on another task. GO! Athletes is rolling out a new and novel mentorship program. And Mosier is in charge.

 

The initiative was two years in the making. The rising number of openly gay athletes has had a snowball effect. More and more competitors (and coaches) are also considering coming out.

 

When an athlete comes out – particularly a big name – he or she is inundated with emails, texts and letters. There are plenty of congratulations – and lots of requests for advice.

“There’s a lot of informal mentorship going on,” Mosier notes. “We want to provide more structure and guidance to the process. And we want to make sure people can provide mentorship in manageable ways.”

 

The aim is to connect LGBT athletes (and coaches) with others – ideally, in their own sport or geographic area, and similar sexual, gender, racial and ethnic identity  – who can help them deal with issues of sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

The need is profound. According to a January 2014 report by MENTOR, 89 percent of at-risk LGBT youth have never had a formal mentor – and 37 percent have never had any mentor at all. The figures are undoubtedly higher for LGBT athletes, because traditionally boys and girls in sports have had fewer role models than those in other activities. Thus, they are less likely to reach out for help – and less likely to have others reach out to them.

 

A 2012 report by Campus Pride found that one in four LGBT student-athletes in college are “pressured to be silent about their sexual identity among teammates, coaches and other athletes.” They are three times as likely to experience harassment, compared to non-athlete peers. The report also found that they are unlikely to believe their administration or athletic department would support them.

 

Last year, GO! Athletes secured a grant to develop a pilot mentorship program, in the Delaware Valley. This year, the LGBT Sports Coalition gave its own funds, to build on those first steps.

 

GO! Athletes examined a variety of mentorship program, in and outside the gay community. They hired a consultant who had done mentorship work at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

They had to answer plenty of questions: Who would be mentored? How would mentors be trained? How would mentors and mentees be matched, and communicate? How would confidentiality be assured? Legal issues? How would the program be assessed?

 

It was a time-consuming process, particularly for an all-volunteer group. Finally, though, the mentorship program is a reality. GO! Athletes is publicizing it through social media, and with outreach to athletic directors and athletic conferences, and through LGBT centers on college campuses.

 

Mentors are in the process of being trained. They’re learning how to ask open-ended questions. How to assess the situation at a school or campus that may be very different from their own. And how not to force any one particular outcome.

 

“The intention is not to get everyone to be out,” Mosier notes. “It’s just to talk through any situation a mentee may be facing, with someone who understands what they’re going through. And to provide options.”

 

There is no age limit, though most mentees are in high school or college. Mentors and mentees attending the annual LGBT Sports Coalition summit in Portland, Oregon each June will have the opportunity to meet face to face – if they haven’t already – at a GO! Athletes-sponsored reception.

 

Mentor applications have poured in from around the country. If there’s one common thread among the men and women hoping to become mentors, Mosier says, it’s this: “I wish I’d had a mentor. That would have been a game-changer for me.”

 

Chris Mosier knows that feeling well from his own life. Which is why, today, he’s mentoring GO! Athletes’ very remarkable arena of mentors.

 

To learn more about the mentorship program, and apply to be a mentor or mentee, click on www.goathletes.org/mentorship.

 

 

 

HIV: Yep, It's Still a Thing

  • December 4, 2015 - 3:05am

A few weeks ago, it became official: HIV is loathsome.

 

It all had started so innocently: Back in 2013, the New York State Division of Human Rights posted a public awareness ad that featured the image of a woman alongside the text "I AM POSITIVE(+)" and "I HAVE RIGHTS." The intent was to inform people with HIV that the state's laws protected them from discrimination. The folks who created the ad grabbed the model's photo from Getty Images, a stock photo service.

 

Only the model in that picture, Avril Nolan, didn't have HIV – and she didn't want anyone thinking she did. Heck, can you blame her? I hear people get unlawfully discriminated against for having that virus! Someone should put out an ad reminding folks about that.

 

Anyway, Nolan (and her lawyers) sued the state for defamation. In October, a New York State Court of Claims judge ruled that she (and her lawyers) was right, and that her lawsuit could continue.

 

The judge was reasonable. The judge was rational. The judge was, let's face it, realistic.

 

"It would be hoped that an indication that someone ... has been diagnosed as HIV positive would not be viewed as indicative of some failure of moral fiber, or of some communicable danger, however our society is not so advanced," Judge Thomas H.

 

Scuccimarra wrote in his decision. He added that the ad's incorrect portrayal "that Ms. Nolan is presently diagnosed as HIV positive, from the perspective of the average person, clearly subjects her to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace and constitutes defamation per se." ("Defamation per se" is legal term that's typically employed when a person has been falsely accused of having a "loathsome" disease, according to the New York Law Journal.)

 

In other words, this is where our society is at today, more than 30 years into our tumultuous relationship with HIV in the U.S.: People are still afraid to be associated with the virus for fear they'll be discriminated against – and that includes people who appear in ads informing the public that people with HIV can't be discriminated against.

 

My head hurts.

 

This is the awful environment in which Charlie Sheen decided to publicly disclose on Nov. 17 that he was one of well over a million people in the U.S., and one of roughly 35 million folks on the planet, who are living with a particular virus inside their bodies.

You've already heard more than enough about Charlie Sheen lately; you probably don't need me to retread that ground. (In case you do, note that TheBody.com and all of the websites who team up for this column have written some outstanding content covering various angles of the story online.) But the Nolan defamation case testifies to just how desperate Sheen's situation must have become that he felt he needed get his status out in the open – out into a public that, generally, still finds HIV-positive people worth contempt, ridicule, aversion and disgrace.

 

Every Dec. 1, humanity marks World AIDS Day. We see HIV covered extensively on the Web, in newspapers, on radio and on TV. We witness public awareness events, testing campaigns and speeches – at least one of which will have taken place somewhere pretty close to you, given that HIV affects every type of person in every region of the country (and the planet). Experts rattle off all sorts of big, sobering, scary numbers, and they talk about prevention, treatment and the search for a cure. Politicians politicize, activists advocate, blowhards bloviate.

 

The efforts around World AIDS Day often seem shallow or pointless to many of us, and I'm sure a lot of them are. It's easy for a grass-roots movement to lose some of its sense of soul when its primary day of activism becomes a regularly scheduled event.

 

But let's not forget what the point of all this is. The point is that having HIV doesn't make someone a bad person. Being a person living with HIV is not comparable to any other state of existence: You're not a smoking gun, you're not a car with no brakes, you're not a ticking time bomb. You're a person living with HIV, a treatable virus.

 

Avril Nolan shouldn't feel like she has to sue somebody to avoid being associated with it. Charlie Sheen shouldn't feel like he has to go on national TV and tell the world he has it so that people will stop blackmailing him.

 

Living with HIV isn't loathsome; the way we treat people with HIV too often is. We need to do better – and we can, each of us, one person at a time. Hopefully Avril Nolan and Charlie Sheen will help. Hopefully, one day soon, HIV anti-discrimination ads will be unnecessary, defamation lawsuits won't need to happen, and the decision to disclose one's HIV status in public will be a matter of personal preference, not compulsion.

 

 

Chris Burns blazes a new path

  • December 4, 2015 - 2:43am

Growing up in Merrimack, New Hampshire, Chris Burns’ life revolved around basketball. He’d played it since age 6, and loved the team camaraderie, individuality, creativity and freedom of the sport. But then he was cut from his middle school team.

Just 4-feet-11-inches in ninth grade, he scrapped his way onto the freshman squad. Then he grew – “like a foot” – over the summer. “Everything came together for me,” he recalls.

 

He made the Providence College team, then transferred to and played at nearby Bryant University. After graduation Burns played for Albany of the Continental Basketball Association, then semi-pro around the Northeast.

 

When his playing days were over, he wanted to stay in the game. In 2009 he joined the Rhode Island College staff as an assistant coach. Today he’s in his fourth year as an assistant at Bryant, his alma mater.

 

So far, a fairly typical story. But Burns is a bit different from any other Division I men’s basketball coach: He is the only one who is openly gay.

 

His first realization that he might be gay came as a sophomore or junior in high school. Like many athletes, he had a tough time reconciling his feelings with his self-image.

“I had never been physical with a guy. I dated a cheerleader. But when I was by myself, I knew who I was attracted to,” Burns recalls.

 

“I thought I needed to keep up my image with females. But that was never what I wanted.”

 

At the end of high school, Burns met Anthony Nicodemo, a high school basketball coach in New York. Though living nearly 200 miles apart, they found ways to spend time together. Their relationship was strong and deep – and closeted. For several years, no one knew their secret.

 

The two men did not use the “g”-word, even with themselves. “We talked about being the best man at each other’s wedding,” Burns says.

 

Had he not been playing basketball, he notes, his coming-out process might have been quicker and easier. In the locker room, he was surrounded by fear. “I didn’t want anyone to know,” he says. “I was going through my own slow personal journey. I wasn’t ready to tackle emotions. It was more comfortable for me to suppress my feelings.”

Eventually, Burns began venturing out. He and Nicodemo went to gay bars in New York. They made gay friends. Both became more comfortable in their own skins.

 

“I was living the way I wanted,” Burns says. At 30 years old, “it felt ridiculous that I had been afraid to go out, that I constantly looked over my shoulder and monitored my social media.”

 

His first steps out of the closet were risky. At first, he simply stopped worrying about what he said. Then he realized he had to do more. He told family members and non-basketball friends.

 

Two years later he told Bryant’s associate athletic director he was gay. It was a spontaneous coming-out gesture, and his reaction was “great.”

 

Burns told others, and then his head coach. His reaction was “who cares?” But he did warn Burns about “not risking my profession.”

 

So – even though the comment had been made from a position of caring – Burns’ coming-out process stalled. For a year and a half, he stayed in a self-imposed basketball closet.

 

“I agonized,” Burns says. “I wanted to get on with my life, but I didn’t know what that meant. If I came out, would I hurt the other coaches, my players, or me?”

 

Two months ago, Burns decided to take the leap. He told the other Bryant coaches, then the Bulldogs’ three captains.

 

Those players were the hardest. “I was all emotional,” he says with a slight laugh. “After talking to my parents, friends and staff, I was scared of these 20-year-olds.”

 

He told them he might have to quit. “No! We need you here!” they said.

 

And that was that. Burns told the rest of the team shortly thereafter. There were hugs and heartfelt comments. No one said a negative word. He’s treated the same as before. In fact, Burns says, some bonds are even stronger.

 

He hangs out in the same locker room he knew as a player. It’s a comfortable place for everyone.

 

One thing has changed: Burns takes time every day to plow through the “ridiculous amount” of emails, texts, even letters he’s received. They’ve come from conference rivals, other basketball players and coaches, plus young kids and 70-year-olds he’s never met.

 

All say how proud they are of him.

 

“Everyone has this idea that sports people are close-minded,” Burns says. “That idea is as outdated as the one that homosexuality should be demonized. Sports people have evolved as much as everyone.

 

“People are just people. It’s overwhelming to see.”

 

 

Q&A with Mondo Guerra

  • October 29, 2015 - 1:06am

Mondo Guerra is a fashion designer who first came to fame in 2010 as a contestant on the eighth season of the reality television show Project Runway. Although he didn’t win, Guerra was a fan favorite, even before he disclosed his HIV-positive status on the show. At that moment he also took on the role of HIV/AIDS activist.

Guerra went through a whirlwind of media attention. Since then, his celebrity profile has certainly increased. He won the debut season of Project Runway All Stars and became a mentor on Under the Gunn (a spinoff series named after Project Runway host Tim Gunn). His designs include apparel, accessories and jewelry.

Guerra has also found a way to connect his design career with his advocacy. In addition to being a spokesperson for “I Design,” an HIV/AIDS media campaign sponsored by Merck, Guerra is a spokesperson for “Dining Out for Life,” an annual fundraiser sponsored by Subaru, in which restaurants donate proceeds to local HIV/AIDS groups.

Five years after publicly disclosing he has HIV, Guerra explains how his life has changed and shares his goals for the future.

What prompted you to get tested for the virus in 2001 at the age of 22?

When I was younger, I believed, like every young person, that I was invincible. I was not making the best decisions. I could feel there was something different about me. So I got tested, and my test came back positive.  

 

After the diagnosis, I was devastated. I grew up in a Latino household and community, and there was never any discussion about HIV/AIDS, so it was definitely scary to me. I did not know how to deal with it.

When I was newly diagnosed, I was very ashamed and afraid. I didn’t really seek any support. I hate to say this, but in a lot of ways, looking back now, being raised Roman Catholic, I felt like it was some kind of punishment.

I stayed silent about my positive status even up to when I was in the hospital with pneumonia over Christmas in 2009. With my family and friends visiting me, I asked my doctors not to disclose any information.

They were walking into a room with a bed where I was hooked up to this and that, and in my heart and mind I was dying of AIDS. I still didn’t talk about it. I hit rock bottom, and I knew I had to start taking better care of myself.

I started taking medical advice and the proper treatments that I needed, and I got better very quickly. I had goals. For such a long time before I was in the hospital, HIV was defining who I was as a person and also as a creative.

The creative part of me was dying, so I had no reason to live. This creativity, the outlets where I was able to express myself, I used them to escape, a way to get through the day. This emotional and spiritual support is an important part of keeping me going.

Tell us about your decision to disclose on Project Runway in 2010.

My revelation on Project Runway was life-changing. It came from fear and turned into a huge sense of responsibility. I walked out on that runway in such a mood, but two hours later I was like, “What are people going to say?”

I was completely scared, so it wasn’t until four days before the episode aired that I told my parents. My parents still live in the home that I grew up in. At the dinner table, we have assigned seating that has never changed.

We had dinner. I knew in my heart – which was beating a million miles an hour – that I just had to come out with it, so I told my parents. “I know” was the first thing my mom told me, that motherly instinct I have always heard about. We talked some more, then my mom said, “I am proud of you.”

That helped me to talk about HIV/AIDS more. I get very emotional about it still because I felt the love that came from the table that night, and it hurts me still because I didn’t trust them and that made me feel bad.

Speaking of your family, your mom and aunts inspired some of your eyewear.

My eyewear collection is inspired by family and friends. There is a whole set of eyewear that is named after my mom and her sisters. It is my way to give back to them, because they have been so supportive and inspirational. It is the least I can do.

I’ve had the great opportunity to have a reality show competition pivot me into some visibility for my designs. It has been such a blessing to have a crossover between my creative work and my advocacy.

Any collaboration that I do at this point must have some kind of way to give back. So I’m glad that part of the See eyewear proceeds goes to amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. It just makes sense to me to be able to do that for others.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I am focusing on restructuring my business. I would love to focus more on my fashion. Advocacy remains dear to me, so I would like more ways to do this crossover of my interests.

I am working on a new show where I am allowed to communicate about HIV and my creative work. I’m not very sure on the direction of it, but it’s important for me to give inspiration and information to young people.

 

This interview originally appeared on POZ.com.

 

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